WASHINGTON—Senator John Kerry made an impassioned but ultimately futile plea for ratifying a treaty aimed at advancing the rights of the blind and disabled across the globe, urging Congress to do for the world what has already been accomplished in the United States to protect Americans with disabilities.
In the end, Kerry and other supporters fell five votes short of the 66 needed for ratification of the international pact known as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities—hailed by advocates as a human rights effort to transform how nations across the world treat those with long-term physical, mental and intellectual impairments, particularly children who face a future of bleakness because of their disabilities.
“We will keep fighting till we win for disabled, vets,” Kerry tweeted after the vote.
It was a clear disappointment for the senior senator from Massachusetts who pushed the bill as an extension of the work of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, a champion for expanding rights for the disabled and a co-sponsor of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, which served as a model for the treaty.
“This is not about politics, it is not about ideology,” Kerry said on the Senate floor before the vote. “It’s about people.”
The treaty had already been approved by the European Union and 125 countries, including China and Russia.
Eight Republicans, including Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and the Senate’s two independents joined Democrats in voting 61-38 in favor of ratification. The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate for a treaty to be ratified.
Proponents argued that the treaty would help further advance rights for the disabled, including Americans already protected by the landmark anti-discrimination law but who, under the treaty, would benefit from barriers falling across the world.
The treaty was supported by President George W. Bush, who helped negotiate it and whose father, President George H. Bush, signed the ADA into law in 1990. The United States became a signatory to the treaty in 2009 under President Obama, a move signaling the country’s intent to ratify the agreement.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, looking frail and requiring a wheelchair, returned to the chamber on Tuesday in a symbolic show of support for the treaty.
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and staunch supporter of the treaty, read from a letter written by Dole.
But McCain’s fellow Republican from Arizona, Senator Jon Kyl, helped defeat the bill.
“Just as with many treaties before this one, the CRPD would offer cover to regimes that have no intention of actually helping their citizens, while needlessly tying the hands of countries like the United States that have actually made great strides in this area,” Kyl said in a floor speech.
Kyl said the treaty would be toothless in forcing countries to adopt measures that would reduce the physical barriers that keep the disabled from having the same access to public facilities as able-bodied people.
Last week, former Senator Rick Santorum convened a news conference to take issue with wording in the treaty alluding to reproductive rights, which some conservatives take as code for abortion. Santorum and other opponents say the treaty risked the usurping of US sovereignty and the rights of parents with disabled children.
In a statement released by his office after the vote, Kerry called the vote one of the saddest in his 28 years in the Senate, “a wakeup call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people.”
“Today the dysfunction hurt veterans and the disabled, and that’s unacceptable. This treaty was supported by every veterans group in America and Bob Dole made an inspiring and courageous personal journey back to the Senate to fight for it,” Kerry said.
Veterans, many maimed in combat, joined business groups, advocates for the disabled, and a few high-profile Republicans in attempting to change enough minds among a solid bloc of GOP members who thwarted passage of the bill because of concerns over abortion, US sovereignty, and timing.
“I could not sleep tonight if I were one of the senators who did not vote for this today,” said Steve Rothstein, president of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, which is working in 67 countries to better the lives of the blind by building schools, training teachers, and advocating for civil rights of the sight-impaired. Some 4.5 million children worldwide, he said, don’t go to school because they are blind.
“It’s embarrassment for our country, which has been such a leader in disability rights,” Rothstein added. “Many counties don’t believe in the value of all human beings.”
Rhonda Neuhaus, who was born without legs, wept as the vote was tallied. “I’m angry, and I’m very sad,” said Neuhaus, who attended Brandeis University and is now a policy analyst at the Washington-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.
“Today, the irrational and outrageous opposition of a bloc of Republican senators denied Senate ratification of the CRPD, betraying the US’s historic role as a global leader in fighting discrimination and opening doors of opportunity for people with disabilities,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.